Three seasons. Three very different Opening Days for Rocco Baldelli.
He was a neophyte skipper in 2019, just beginning to establish his rest-and-recovery edicts while making data-driven decisions like no Twins manager before him.
Last year, he was coming off an award-winning season and a playoff berth while guiding an offense that set the major league record for homers in a season. Then, like his contemporaries, he had to manage through a pandemic.
This opening week will stand out to Baldelli as well, for it will be a mix of the sweet sounds of baseball with the sorrow of losing bench coach Mike Bell, who died on March 26 at age 46 from kidney cancer.
Baldelli, along with Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine, attended Bell's funeral on Wednesday in Phoenix. Consequently, Baldelli was not around for the Twins' final preparation before their season opener against Milwaukee. And Bell, who quickly became a friend and trusted voice upon his arrival before the 2020 season, was on Baldelli's mind on Thursday.
"He was never too busy for someone," Baldelli said. "He made time for every single person all the time. It goes well beyond anything that goes on out on the field. These are more lessons on life than they are baseball. Mike was just a wonderful person, and I hope to live like him as we go forward."
Baldelli flew into Milwaukee on Thursday morning, the day of the opener. He arrived at the park in time to greet a few people before heading to his pregame Zoom conference with the media. Then he headed right for batting practice as part of the run-up to the first pitch of the season.
Bell's influence on the team lasted up until his final days, when he pushed for Luis Arraez to bat leadoff for the Twins. Baldelli said Bell, who participated in meetings remotely, believed strongly that it was best for the lineup. Sure enough, Arraez opened the season batting first and had two hits and an RBI.
The Twins are shooting for a third consecutive AL Central title. The White Sox have added to a roster full of young talent and loom as the Twins' biggest threat in the division, and Baldelli won't move forward without what he learned from Bell in their one season together.
"Well, I've been thinking about Mike continually, as have many members of our staff and our roster," Baldelli said. "There's no getting away from that. I don't really want to get away from that. I want to keep him in my heart going forward. I will forever."
One player Twins fans should be watching carefully over the opening weeks of the season is Detroit outfielder Akil Baddoo, a Rule 5 pick who made the Tigers roster out of spring training despite batting .214 in 29 games at high-A in 2019.
The team Baddoo played for then was the Fort Myers Miracle.
He was a second-round pick of the Twins in the 2016 draft. After playing for the Miracle in 2019, Baddoo, like many minor leaguers, was mostly idle in 2020 because of the pandemic.
The Twins considered adding Baddoo to the 40-man roster this past offseason but ultimately left him off. Detroit then selected him in the Rule 5 draft. Baddoo reported to camp weighing 210 pounds and showing power. In 21 spring training games, he hit .325 with five home runs and a 1.210 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. And Detroit decided to bring him north.
If Baddoo slumps and the Tigers try to demote him, he will have to clear waivers first, then be offered back to the Twins before Detroit could send him to the minors.
The Twins would gladly take Baddoo back if it gets that far.
That other No. 1
The Wolves have had faith that their first-rounder would develop nicely for them.
And forward Jaden McDaniels has not disappointed.
Look, Anthony Edwards is showing all the signs of becoming an NBA star. His fingerprints were all over the Wolves' 102-101 win over the Knicks on Wednesday. But Wolves coach Chris Finch, after the game, also gushed about McDaniels' defense. McDaniels helped keep Julius Randle under wraps while adding 18 points himself.
"These guys are the best in the world, and he's making it difficult," Finch said. "Even when they score on him, he's coming right back and trying to win the next possession, and that's what we love about him. He's really fearless and he's unflappable."
And much needed.
McDaniels, who was selected 28th overall by the Lakers and then sent to the Wolves as part of a three-team deal that also included the Knicks, has desire as well as the traits to be a top defensive player. For a team that has struggled to shut opponents down when needed, the 6-foot-10 McDaniels might be wedging his way into a bigger role. He has made six starts and likely has earned more.
Here are my Picks to Click for 2021, a Twins pitcher and position player I expect to have a big year.
Pitcher: Jose Berrios
The righthander has refined his work ethic and pitches while learning how to attack batters.
Position player: Jorge Polanco
Two seasons of ankle problems are behind him, and the second baseman is too professional a hitter not to bounce back.